Hillary Williams, Group Brand Director, Connelly Partners

MarketingDive, Contributed by Hillary Williams, December 1, 2020

Anticipation, stress, preparation: all hallmarks of the holiday season. But this year, people are wondering “if” vs. “how” their holidays will happen; stressing over who can join vs. what to serve; and carefully orchestrating safety vs. party preparation. We’ve lost elaborate travel plans and excessive gatherings, but gained carefully timed quarantines, precautionary COVID tests and socially distant celebrations.

The holidays have simultaneously become both less and more of a colossal headache. This leaves consumers trying to satisfy their desire for normalcy with the comfort of the holidays while staying safe — ultimately striking an important balance between managing both physical and mental health. This year it’s more apparent than ever that we crave connection and the holiday traditions that give us structure and guidance — a reliability that especially now, offers refuge from otherwise tumultuous times.

As brands engage with consumers this holiday season, it’s imperative they are not only empathetic, but find useful, actionable ways to foster connection, alleviate stress and enhance the holiday experience.

Adapt to new traditions

Above all, safety remains the top priority this holiday season, and according to a recent study, 76% of respondents will consider the holidays a success if they avoid the health and safety risks of COVID-19. As a result, 26% of people reported avoiding long distance travel or guests, per research from The Hartman Group for the Food Marketing Institute. Based on our recent Connelly Partners survey, 34% of respondents are going to significantly downsize their gatherings with 47% only including immediate family.

With adjusted plans to stay closer to home and celebrate with smaller groups, many may relish in leaving behind long flights and multiple family celebrations in one day. Smaller and tighter budgets for many will likely mean less extravagant holiday spreads.

Some brands already jumped in with portion control solutions. Purdue introduced its ThanksNuggets, replacing the need to buy a whole turkey and bringing shoppers a mixed bag of breast meat nuggets shaped like turkeys and dark meat and cranberry nuggets shaped like drumsticks, touting a “LazyGiving.” While full sized turkeys likely aren’t leaving most family tables any time soon, this was a clever and current twist on a holiday staple that could appeal to younger audiences. Perhaps a new #friendsgiving go-to?

Enhance the unconventional ‘together’ experience

With the prioritization of safety, comes an inherent desire to maintain some semblance of tradition and be emotionally connected through familiar pastimes with family. Over the past nine months, we have redefined what “being together” means with countless Zoom calls and socially distanced outdoor gatherings, so it’s no surprise that 19% of survey respondents plan to hold virtual gatherings, according to The Hartman Group.

However, with a new found tech-savviness comes a virtual fatigue and desire for in-person connection, so many will likely find themselves taking extra steps to get tested in order to be in the same indoor spaces. As we see so many families jumping through hoops to find ways to be together — whether that’s waiting in line for two hours in the freezing cold for a COVID test or coordinating outdoor, distanced dinner tables — it’s a reminder that the core of the holiday season is surrounding yourself with loved ones. Corny? Yes. True? Also yes.

This year has left us desperate for the comfort of connection this holiday season and by helping to bridge that daunting gap, brands will help solve a major consumer challenge. Jose Cuervo is facilitating togetherness by creating life-sized cardboard cutouts for people to ship to family and friends. These “dopple-drinkers” not only help ensure no one misses a group family photo this year, but provides what all of us could use a lot more of these days — a good laugh.

Dial up the comfort

In addition to connecting with family, another way consumers are holding onto holiday traditions is through the comfort of mealtime. Our Connelly Partners survey found that 36% of respondents are planning to rely on traditional staples with 23% incorporating additional comfort food. Due to widespread cooking burnout after nine months of the majority of meals made at home, 30% are planning to do less overall this year, The Hartman Group research found. With stress at an all-time high, now is the time for brands to help us all create space for feel good moments and alleviate stress. Whether it’s focusing on indulgent, easy recipes (read: pasta, cheese, chocolate) or hacks to cut down holiday meal time prep — delicious, filling and easy should be the name of the game this year.

The dual stress around this uncharted holiday season and yearning for moments of normalcy create a complex emotional need state for brands to navigate. But if done well, it also creates an opportunity to make a genuine impact in consumers lives and inject happiness, comfort and connection at a time when we all need it most.